English Literature 1340-1660
The Canterbury Tales
This work was first conceived in 1386 when Chaucer lived some miles east of London and where from his house
he could see the pilgrim road that led to the shrine of the famous English Saint, Thomas à Becket, the archibishop
of Canterbury who was murdered in his cathedral in 1170. Medieval pilgrims were notorious tale tellers and so the
original plan of the work was to write about 120 stories, two for each pilgrim to tell on the way to Canterbury and
two more in the way back. Chaucer, indeed, completed only 22 and the pilgrims never even get to Canterbury.
The most famous medieval work similar to The Canterbury Tales is Boccaccio's Decameron, which contains tales
with plots analogous to plots found also in The Canterbury Tales but these stories were widespread and so there is
no proof that Chaucer got them from Boccaccio. Moreover in Boccaccio the ten speakers belong to the same
social elite, while Chaucer's pilgrims narrators represent a wide range of ranks and occupations. The variety of
tellers is matched by the diversity of their tales: these are assigned to appropriate narrators and juxtaposed to
bring out contrast in genre, style, tone and values.
Chaucer conducts two fictions simultaneously, that of the individual tale and that of the pilgrim to whom he has
assigned it and he develops the second fiction not only through the General Prologue but also through the links
and interchanges among pilgrims connecting the stories. These interchanges sometimes lead to quarrels.
The composition of none of the tales can be accurately dated: most of them were written during the last 14 years
of his life, although a few were probably written earlier and inserted into The Canterbury Tales.
The narrator opens the General Prologue with a description of the return of spring. He describes the April rains,
the burgeoning flowers ( fiori che sbocciano) and leaves, and the chirping birds. The narrator says that, around this
time of the year, people begin to feel the desire to go on a pilgrimage. Many devout English pilgrims choose to
travel to Canterbury to visit the relics of Saint Thomas à Becket in Canterbury Cathedral, where they can thank the
martyr for having helped them when they were in need. The narrator tells us that as he was preparing to go on
such a pilgrimage, staying at a tavern called the Tabard Inn, a great company of 29 travelers entered. The
travelers were a diverse group who, like the narrator, were on their way to Canterbury. They happily agreed to let
him join them. That night, the group slept at the Tabard, and woke up early the next morning to set off on their
journey. Before continuing the tale, the narrator declares the intent to list and describe each of the members of the
Miracle and Mistery Plays
Definition: a sequence or cycle of plays based on the Bible and produced by the city guilds, the organizations
representing the various traders and crafts. Only the cycles of York and Chester towns have bene preserved.
Medieval mistery plays had an immensely confident reach in both space and time. In York, for example, the
theatrical space and time of this urban drama was that of the e tigre city, lasting from sunrise through the entire
summer holiday. The time represented ran from the Fall of the Angels and the Creation of the world, till the Last
Judgement. Between these extremities of the beginning and end of time, each cycle presents key episodes of Old
The church had its own drama in latin; the vernacular drama evolved from the liturgical, passing by stages from
the church into the streeets of the town.
During the late 14th and 15th centuries, the Great English mystery cycles were formed in provincial cities
developed by city guilds. A guild was also known as a mistery, from latin ministerium, from where the name mistery
play. The performance and staging required significant investments of time and money and often, the subject of
the play corresponded to the function of the guild. In some of the cities each guild had a wagon that served ad a
stage. The wagon proceeded from one strategic point in the city to another, and the play was performed a number
of times on the same day. So, the cycles were public spectacles watched by every layer and they prepared the
way for the professional theater in the Age of Elizabeth the first.
Middle English lyrics - the Cuckoo Song
Only late 14th century English began to develop an aristocratic and formal lyric that had been cultivated on the
Continent by the Troubador poets in the south of France or the italian poets characterized by the Dolce Stil nuovo.
Chaucer, under the influence of French poets, wrote lovers' complaints, poetry and verse letters in the form of
ballades, roundels and other lyric types. Chaucer, his predecessors and their followers were familiar with and
influenced by an ancient tradition of popular songe from which only a small fraction survives. The middle English
lyrics are the work of anonymous poets and are difficult to date. The topics and language in these poems are
highly conventional, but they also seem fresh and spontaneous. Many are marked by strong accentual rhythms
with alliteration. Some were set to music, perhaps one of the earliest, the "Cuckoo Song" is a canon or round in
which the voices follow one another and join together echoing the joyous cry cuckoo.
It is an example of medieval drama known as morality play. Morality plays were composed indivudually and they
dramatized allegories of spiritual struggle. Typically, a person named Human or mankind or youth is faced with a
choice between a pious life in company with Mercy, Discretion and Good Deeds and a dissolute life among riotous
companions like Lust or Mischief. Everyman is about the day of Judgement that every individual must face
eventually. The play represents the forces, both outside and within the protagonist, that can help to save Everyman
and those that cannot or that obstruct his salvation. The play contains a certain humour in showing the haste with
which the hero's friends abandon him when they discover his problem. The play inculcates its austere lesson by
the simplicity and directness of its language and of its approach. At the end, Knowledge teaches the lesson that
every Christian must learn in order to be saved. It was written near the end of the 15th century.
Sir Thomas More
More was one of the most important writer of the English Renaissance. The catholic church made him a saint,
communists celebrated his book Utopia as a forerunner of their plan to abolish private property and middle-class
liberals have admired his vision of free public education and freedom of thought. But, at the same time catholic
bishops of 16th century Spain and Portugal placed Utopia on their list of prohibited books, Karl Marx did not accept
More's ideas that he labelled as utopian and liberals have noticed that More embraced the idea of the forced labor
He studied at Oxford where he was torn between a career as a lawyer, as his father was, and a life of religious
devotion. He tried both of them. After his law studies, he gave a series of public lectures on Saint Augustine's work.
He also had a passion for Greek and Latin literature, a passion that he shared with his colse friend Erasmus of
For More, the love of playful, subversive wit culminated in Utopia, which he began in 1515. The book displays the
strong influence of Plato's Republic, but it is also shaped by more contemporary influences such ad monastic
communities, emerging market societies, peasant's rebels and voyages, especially those of Amerigo Vespucci.
Those voyages showed a world seemengly free of inequality and economic exploitation.
Book 2 of Utopia, that More composed as first, describes in detail the laws and customs of a country that is similar
to England, but, indeed, it is very different: these was the abolition of money and private property, and the parasitic
classes - nobles, lawyers, idle priests and rapacious soldiers - have been eliminated. In Utopia, a well ordered
political democracy, education is free and universal, instead of oppressed peasants there are prosperous collective
farms. There are rational cities with free hospitals and child care. There is work for everybody and also a lot of time
for all citizens to pursue the arts of peace and the pleasures of the mind and the body.
The picture of England in book 1 of Utopia - with beggars in the streets and hungry farmers, makes the sharpest
contrast with the ordered and peaceable state described in book 2. Yet, book 1 is not a call for revolutionary social
reform. It is a meditation, in the form of a dialogue, on the question of whether intellectuals should involve
themselves in politics. The two speakers in the dialogue are a traveler named Raphael Hythloday and someone
named Thomas More, who closely resembles but pehaps should not be identified with the real More. More thinks
that Hythloday, with his extraordinary learning experience and high principles, should offer his services as a
councilor to one of the great monarch of Europe. Hythloday thinks that kings would never dream of adopting the
radical policies such ad the abandonment of warfare and the abolition of private property. In the dialogue,
Hythloday is the idealist, unwilling to dirty his hands in a pointless cause, while More is the sincere pragmatist,
prepared to compromise with the system and seek to change it from within rather than five up of any possibility of
action. In Book 1, the debate between the two has no clear winner, but not long after completing Utopia, the real
Thomas More entered the council of Henry VIII.
Book 2, Hythloday's narrative of his visit to Utopia, is also a form of dialogue and it is also a complex and
ambiguous meditation on the nature of the ideal Commonwealth. The dialogue form encourages the reader to
register the disturbing ungerside of More's island Commonwealth: Utopia is a society that rests upon slavery, there
is no variety in dress or housing or cityscape, no privacy. Citizens are encouraged to value pleasure, but they arte
constantly monitored. There is nominal freedom of thought, and toleration of religious diversity but still the priests
can punish people for "impiety".
If there is a deep ambivalence in More's attitude toward Utopia, there is no comparable ambivalence in the other
great work he wrote at the same time.
After receiving the degree at Oxford, Lyly went to London where his prose romance Euphues was an instant
success. Subsequently, he wrote several and elegant plays acted at court by the children's companies. The title
Euphues, taken from the name of that book's hero, is Greek and means graceful, witty, while the subtitle, Anatomy
of Wit, means something like "analysis of the mental faculties". The plot of work involves a young man who leaves
university for the temptation of the city, falls in love, betrays his best friend, is in turn betrayed, repents, and so
shows great quantities of mortal wisdom. But the plot is secondary to the prose style which has come to be known
as Euphuism. It has two characteristics: an elaborate sentence structure based on comparison and antithesis, and
a lot of ornament including proverbs and imagination.
Edmund Spenser - The Shepheardes Calendar
Pastoral poetry, with its idea of shepherds piping on their flutes and singing songs of love, sadness and complaint
was an influential classical form. The singers were rustics who inhabited a world in which human beings and
nature lived in harmony, but the form was always urban. The rustic mask also allowed Spenser to make satirical
comments on controversial religious and political issues of his day, such as Elizabeth's suppression of Puritan
clergy in the Church of England. The 12 eclogues of the Shepheardes Calendar are titled for the months of the
year, each one is prefaced by an illustration representing the characters and theme of the poem and picturing the
sign of the zodiac for that month, and each is accompanied by a commentary ascribed to E.K. who also wrote an
introduction. This E.K. Must have been someone close to Spenser, or Spenser himself. "October" deals with the
place of poetry and the responsibility of the poet in the world, an important theme throughout the Calender and in
much of Spenser's work.
The Faerie Queene
In a letter to Sir Walter Relegh, which appears in the first edition of The Faerie Queen, in 1590, Spenser describes
his exuberant poem as an allegory and invites us to interpret the characters and adventurers in the several books
in terms of the particular virtues and vices they enact or come to embody; so, the Redcrosse Knight in Book 1 is
the knight of Holiness; Sir Guyon in Book2 is the knight of Temperance; the female knight Britomart in Book 3 is
the knight of Chastity. The heroes of Books 4, 5 and 6 represent Friendship, Justice and Courtesy.
However, Spenser's allegory is not as simple as the letter to Ralegh may suggest : the Knights have a surprisingly
complex human relation to their allegorical identities. No these identities they grow only through painful trial and
error in the course of their adventures. These adventures repeatedly take the form of moral combat with sworn
enemies - so, the Redcrosse Knight of Holiness smiles the "Saracen" Sansfoy, literally "without faith" - but the
enemies reveal, more often, a dissociated aspect of the Knights themselves: when he encounters Sansfoy,
Redcrosse has just been faithless to his lady Una.
The complexity derives also by the inclusion, in addition to the moral allegory, of a historical allegory to which
Spenser calls attention, in the letter to Ralegh, by observing that both the Faerie Queene and Belphoebe are
personifications of Queen Elizabeth. Throughout the poem there is a dense network of allusions to events, issues,
and particular persons in England and Ireland, for example, the Queen
The son of a Canterbury shoemaker, he went to Cambridge on a scholarship that was normally awarded to
students preparing for the ministry. He held the scholarship for the maximum time, six years, but he did not take
holy orders. Instead he began to write plays. When he applied for his Master of Arts degree in 1587, the university
was about to deny it to him on the ground that he intended to go abroad to join the dissident English Catholic at
Rheims. We do not know much about his private life, the likeliest possibility is that he served as a spy against
English Catholics who were conspiring to overthrow the Protestant regime.
Before he left Cambridge, Marlowe had certainly written his tremendously successful play Tamburlaine and
perhaps also the tragedy of Dido, Queen of Carthage. Tamburlaine dramatizes the exploits of a 14th century
Mongol warrior who rose from humble origins to conquer a huge territory that extended from the Black Sea to
Delhi. His hero is the expression of boundless energy and ambition, the impulse to ceaselessly for absolute
dominance. Yet Tamburlaine's conquests are achieved not only by force of arms, but also by his extraordinary
mastery of language. The English theater audience had never before heard such resonant and energetic blank
In 1589 he was involved in a brawl with William Bradley, in which the poet Thomas Watson intervened and killed
Bradley. Both poets were jailed and then released. In 1591 Marlowe was living in London with the playwright Kyd.
In 1593, an informer named Richard Baines submitted a note to the Council with which he branded Marlowe with
atheism, seduction and homosexuality. Four days later, at an inn in the London suburb, Marlowe was killed.
Modern scholars have discovered that the murderer and the others present in the room at the inn had connections
to the world of spies, double agents to which Marlowe was linked.
Marlowe's tragic vision seems for the most part religiously and socially conventional. Tamburlaine at last suffers
divine retribution and death at the end of the sequel, "Tamburaline Part II"; the central character of " The Jew of
Malta" is a monstrous anti-Semitic caricature; "Doctor Faustus" and " Edward II" ( which treats the tragic fate of a
homosexual king) demonstrate the destruction of those who rebel against the official moral order. Yet there is a
force at work in these plays that questions and undermines conventional morality. The crime for which Tamburlaine
is apparently struck down is the burning of the Muslim Koran; the Jew of Malta turns out to be less ruthless and
hypocritical than his Christian counterparts; Edward II's life of homoerotic indulgence seems innocent in
comparison with the cynical and violent dealings of the corrupt rebels who turn against him.
Marlowe's major dramas, " Tamburlaine", "The Jew of malta" and "Doctor Faustus", all portray heroes who
passionately seek power - the power of rule, the power of money and the power of knowledge respectively.
Faustus seeks the mastery and pleasure that come from forbidden knowledge. To achieve this goal Faustus must
make a bargain with Lucifer. This is an old folklore motif, but it would have been taken seriously in a time when
audience is vividly suggested by the numerous accounts of uncanny events at performances of a play: strange
noises in the theater or extra devils who suddenly appeared among the actors on stage, causing panic.
In the opening soliloquy, Marlowe's Faustus bids farewell to his studies: logic, medicine and law. He turns to black
magic, but the devil exacts a fearful price in exchange: the eternal damnation of Faustus's soul. His fall is caused
by the same and ambition that caused the fall of the angles in heaven and of humankind in the Garden of Eden.
But it is the characteristic of Marlowe that he makes his aspiration magnificent.
The immediate source of the play is a German narrative called, in its English translation, " The history of a
damnable life and deserved death of Doctor John Faustus". Marlowe's play exists in two very different forms: the A
text and the much longer B text, which probably incorporates additions by other hands and which has also been
revised to conform to the severe censorship statutes of 1606.
William Shakespeare (1564 - 1616)
William Shakespeare was born in the small market town of Stratford - on - Avon in 1564. Shakespeare almost
certainly attended the free Stratford grammar school, where he could have acquired a reasonably impressive
education, including a respectable knowledge of Latin, but he did not proceed to Oxford or Cambridge. There are
legends about Shakespeare's youth but no documented facts, the first unambiguous record we have of his life is
that of his marriage in 1582, at 18, to Anne Hathaway, eight years elder than him. A daughter, Susanna, was born
six months later, in 1583, and twins, Hannet and Judith in 1585. By 1592, Shakespeare was in London as an actor
and apparently already well known as a playwright. At this time, there were several companies of professional
actors in London and in the provinces. What connections Shakespeare had with one or more of them before 1592
is conjectural, but we know of his long and fruitful connections with the most successful troupe, the Lord
Chamberlain's Men, who later, when James I came to the throne, became the King's Men. Shakespeare not only
acted with this company but eventually became a leading shareholder and the principal playwright. Making a living
in the professional theater was not easy: competition about the repertoire companies was stiff, civic officials and
religious moralists regarded playacting as a sinful nuisance and tried to ban it altogether, government officials
exercised censorship over the contents of the plays, and periodic outbreaks of bubonic plague led to a temporary
closing of the London theaters. But Shakespeare's company succeeded in beginning to perform in the Globe in
1599, a fine open-air theater that the company built for itself on the south bank of the Thames. By 1597
+1 anno fa
I contenuti di questa pagina costituiscono rielaborazioni personali del Publisher Giambellino di informazioni apprese con la frequenza delle lezioni di Letteratura inglese e studio autonomo di eventuali libri di riferimento in preparazione dell'esame finale o della tesi. Non devono intendersi come materiale ufficiale dell'università Guglielmo Marconi - Unimarconi o del prof Luppi Fabio.
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